Our Spaceflight Heritage: Saving 1968
The very first Christmas spent in space by humans was in 1968 during the mission of Apollo 8, forty-eight years ago. That flight saw the first people leave Earth’s orbit and go to another heavenly body.
Having launched on Dec. 21, 1968, Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders actually arrived in orbit around the Moon on Christmas Eve when the main engine of the Apollo Command/Service module, the Service Propulsion System (SPS), ignited and burned for 4 minutes, 13 seconds.
That burn was described by the crew as the longest four minutes of their lives. It had to go nearly perfectly. If it hadn’t lasted the right amount of time, they could have ended up in a highly elliptical lunar orbit or even flung into deep space.
Turmoil at home
1968 was a year that saw much strife in the United States as well as around the world. There were protests, in some cases riots, across the country attempting to challenge the status quo of racial relations and equality under the law. It was also an election year with a very heated race with partisan politics.
The Vietnam War was in one of its worst years. Protests of the conflict produced anxiety across the U.S. Additionally, there were multiple assassinations of leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy – who was the favorite to win the 1968 presidential election.
There were some who didn’t want NASA to go through with the newly re-purposed Apollo 8 mission. The lunar module wasn’t ready and, therefore, could not be used as a backup to the SPS. The last thing Americans needed was three astronauts stuck orbiting the Moon until they ran out of consumables.
Swapping mission types
However, satellite imagery taken of Baikonur Cosmodrome showed the Soviet Union was developing a Saturn V-like heavy lift vehicle. There were those in the U.S. that wanted to one-up a potential Soviet orbital lunar mission.
Apollo 8 was originally planned to be much like what the Apollo 9 mission actually did in March 1969, a test of the complete Apollo spacecraft with the Lunar Module in Earth orbit. However, since Grumman – the contractor for the lander – was behind in its development, it was decided to swap the mission types and fly without the LM.
Apollo 8 Lunar Orbit Insertion
The SPS burn finished at 4:59 a.m. EST (09:59 GMT) Dec. 24, 1968. Despite fears of potential failure, all went as planned and the crew spent 20 hours orbiting the Moon.
Along the way, the astronauts witnessed the first ever “Earthrise” with human eyes as the Apollo Command Module continued to orbit around the far side of the Moon and back into view of Earth.
On the ninth orbit, the crew conducted a television transmission. They described to the millions listening on Earth what they saw with human eyes up close for the first time as “a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing.”
Soon after they read from a section of the Bible’s creation story in the Book of Genesis before closing out the transmission.
“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth,” Borman said.
The crew left the Moon two-and-a-half hours later on Christmas Day. With a successful Trans-Earth Injection burn. Apollo 8 was on its way back to Earth.
Re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere occurred on Dec. 27, 1968, after 6 days, 3 hours and 42 minutes in space.
Everything went successfully. The crew themselves only gave the mission a fifty-fifty chance of fully succeeding. Upon returning to Earth, Borman received a telegram from a stranger commenting on the mission’s outcome by simply stating: “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”
Video courtesy of NASA
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity. He met with members of the SpaceFlight Insider team during the flight of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket with the MUOS-4 satellite. Richardson joined our team shortly thereafter. His passion for space ignited when he watched Space Shuttle Discovery launch into space Oct. 29, 1998. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized his true calling was communicating to others about space. Since joining SpaceFlight Insider in 2015, Richardson has worked to increase the quality of our content, eventually becoming our managing editor.